Let Them Stare at Your M9+ in Disbelief
I’ve been meaning to write an editorial on HTC designs for a while, and if I would have done so before the M9 came out and at the point where people expected the @evleaks renders to be the final look, the article would have ended up positively. But what prompted me to spill the e-ink is HTC’s M9+ announcement, which has a tidy introduction in this HTC blog post. As I read down the list of features and looked at the pictures, I had a similar feeling to the one I had when watching the MWC 2015 HTC Utopia event with the rest of the XDA Portal Team. I could not stop thinking: “HTC, what are you doing?”.
M7 – A New Hope for HTC
The HTC One M7 brought the One X line to the top of the flagship game: it featured a design unlike anything Android had to offer at the time, and it also far surpassed the then-glass backed iPhones in this regard. It looked industrial and extremely well-crafted, with a unibody design that simply screamed quality. That was the kind of phone that, when you saw on the streets for the first time, you really did stare at.
There were a few things holding it back, like the ultrapixel camera at the back which had merely 4MP for image resolution. The camera did have its strengths, but it still disappointed most of their base. The bizarre part is that HTC had claimed the new ultrapixel technology would have been fantastic, but of course that wasn’t the case. Despite their supposed affinity towards professional shots, the M7’s shooter didn’t live up to the task. Did it matter? Not that much considering the device still had one of the most impressive designs of any smartphone, the latest Snapdragon 600 SoC, a gorgeous 1080p display and the amazing boomsound speakers. It was a great start for what many thought would be HTC’s reclaiming of their Android empire.
M8 – HTC’s Empire Strikes Back
The key to a smartphone is evolution, and when HTC first showed us the HTC One M8, you could see quite a bit of that. The new M8 hit all the right spots for me in terms of design, at least initially: it moved from the ultra-industrial square look of the M7 to a rounded, sleeker and dare I say chiq brushed gunmetal aluminum body. The M7’s squarish motif transitioned very well into the M8’s roundness, and critics agreed that this was a revolution for HTC’s design prowess, which once again proved to be the superior one in the Android game.
But what the M8 brought with it in design seemingly took away from other places. The screen grew from 4.7 to 5 inches, and the resolution stayed the same (understandably so, for the time), which made for a much better viewing experience. The boomsound speakers got a little better too, but the camera which many were hoping would finally be up to par did not improve significantly. HTC once more opted for their ultrapixel technology and for 4MP resolutions – but now with two cameras. Nobody was sure if HTC had taken tips from AMD on this strategy, but the finished product once again let us down in that regard. And that coupled with the obnoxious black bar at the bottom (which now served no purpose as it had no capacitive keys on the M8) made the M8’s design improvements feel like a sacrifice. Luckily, the phone remained fantastic and one of the best of 2014. Expectations were higher than ever for HTC at that point, but they proved to be too high.
M9 – Attack of the M8 Clones
The M9 is perhaps one of the most controversial phones of recent times, with the throttling imposed to prevent the Snapdragon 810’s overheating causing all sorts of issues for both users and HTC. But what really angered fans – even before those developments – was the almost non-existent step forward in design. The M9 looks just like the M8 to most of us, and HTC itself seemingly confused the two in one of their own posts. They are that similar, down to the black bar which is still there for whatever reason. If anything, the new square camera clashes with the rounded motif of the M8, giving it a disjointed design language.
But perhaps the biggest offender is the camera module, which had been reported to be disappointing just a few hours after the demo units at MWC 2015 . Now that the phone is attainable and embargos are broken, the many comparison shootouts show just how far behind it is the competition. Throughout their One line-up, they had one job which they over-promised on every iteration, and never fulfilled. The button placement of previous phones was a matter of concern before too, but according to reviewers, they placement is even worse on the M9 as the power button is too close to the volume keys. The display stagnated too (and in fact, it regressed in many metrics), and the boomsound speakers had their incremental improvement once more, but at that point it was not enough to balance the rest out.
The M7 was a good all-around phone, and so were its successors. But the M8’s revolution in design and small evolution in functionality were lost in the M9, which had too little of a step forward in its appearance to be deemed an evolution, and too little of a step forward in hardware to warrant the extra cash. This is something I see all the time in M9 reviews: critics themselves state that they can’t consider the M9 the best purchase when the M8 is so similar and is now substantially cheaper. At this point many believe HTC lost their way, and eager fans want them back on track. What can they do to redeem themselves?
The Clone Wars: M8s & M9+
Certainly not this. HTC is, once again, rehashing a design with the M8s, which features nearly identical construction and the same display, but a 13MP camera (we hope that for the better) alongside the extra camera of the regular M8, and a Snapdragon 615 instead of the typical 801. The device will cost less than the M8 but more than the Desire 826, which is cheaper and has a bigger display, the same chipset and a respectable 13MP camera. While Samsung has increasingly been moving away from releasing massive amounts of phones, HTC seems to expand their trend with new gimmicky ones like the HTC Eye and their many cheaper offerings. The funny bit to this is that online communities had joked about the M9 being and M8S or and M8+, and then they actually gave us one.
But they also gave us an M9+, which to me is simply the worst looking phone HTC has ever produced. The black bezel seems even thicker, with an equally thick metal bezel on the side. The HTC bar remains, once again not capacitive, but now with even more space under it to accommodate both boomsound speakers and a fingerprint scanner which doesn’t look to be the button kind either – and if it is, having a physical and software homebutton is redundant. The camera is round again, at least, albeit a little too big, as big as the leaks had shown it to be.
To further stir the pot, the M9+ features a 20MP camera which could have the same technology found in the M9, albeit with the dual-camera set-up. People are already skeptic due to that simple fact, but many are downright angry at the Mediatek processor found inside – not just because Mediatek chipsets are typically considered slower, but because of their bad reputation in the modding community. And if you are in North America or in Europe you shouldn’t expect the device at your stores anytime soon.
Here’s to Change
HTC prides itself of their designs, market strategies, and their general performance in some of the smuggest ads out there. Their “Let Them Stare” campaign is indicative of that, but also their choices in marketing figures such as Robert Downey Jr. who tries to convey the message that HTC phones are esoteric… sometimes with extremely cheesy results. Some other ads of their, however, are clearly marketed at a much different crowd than the refined customer they originally attracted and built for. Their new advertising campaign is as disjointed as their latest designs.
What is the cause of all of this? It is hard to pin-point. HTC had something great with the M7, and something even better with the M8. They had been crowned “Smartphone of The Year” by many critics, and as far as Android goes, they won all the Design awards as well. Could HTC have thought that people didn’t want a new design? In that case, they completely misjudged the market, and the decision backfired. But it could have simply been internal staff changes or procedures we don’t know about that made this year’s releases what they are. We do know that internal staff changes happened shortly after the M9’s unveiling: HTC’s Lead Designer jumped out the ship amidst all the buzz the M9’s design got, and Peter Chou stepped down from his CEO position in the same time frame.
HTC was in a complicated spot in early 2014, and they also were prior to the M9 unveiling – despite making some of the best phones in the world with the M7 and M8, they were in financial trouble, so obviously they wanted a truly successful product to turn things around. The M9 has been both praised and slammed by reviewers, but it seems that the latter are the ones seen as the more honest bunch by internet communities who are disappointed at the M9’s stagnation. It is still a good phone, mind you – but like other people have said, it is more of an M8+ or M8s than an M9. And the fact that we have an actual M8s, and now an M9+ too, makes it seem like HTC is parodying itself. They were a favorite player for years, and we all love rooting for the underdog. Because of that, we hope that HTC turns things around soon enough. But until they release another fully compelling phone, they can only let us stare at the M9+ and wonder what is going on.
What do you think of the latest HTC phones? Have they disappointed you? Tell us below!